Posted on Thu, 12/14/2023 - 03:25pm

Prairie Preservation: An Odyssey on the North Dakota Prairies
By Wyatt Atchley, special collections archivist

A 2004 Pontiac Bonneville should be a stranger to the back roads of Danzig, North Dakota. I grew up driving on dirt roads and washboards. Still, in a car that sits a mere 5 inches from the ground, I figured I was in no place to pick a fight with grass-covered roads. . . but I had done so multiple times on this trip anyways. I had passed only three vehicles on the drive to the stone house near Goose Lake – all were pickups. I greeted their drivers in the quintessential Midwest manner, raising a few fingers from the steering wheel and offering a nod, pretending I belonged. People in small towns always wave. If a local sees a car on the narrow back roads of south-central North Dakota, they think they know you or assume you are lost. In this case, they assumed correctly.

I pulled off the road and spent the next 20 minutes in the dry heat plucking the prairie from the front end of my Pontiac. I wiped the sweat from my brow, checked the GPS, and assured myself I was at the right place.

I had undertaken a project for the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at NDSU. I spent weeks collecting data to locate houses that Father William C. Sherman had documented during his travels with NDSU students. In the 1970s, these dedicated individuals had traversed the undulating plains of North Dakota, laboring tirelessly to record the architectural legacy left behind by early settlers. Fast forward half a century, and I found myself following in their footsteps, albeit on a more modest scale. I was working to curate an online exhibit highlighting the architecture of German-Russians who had traveled across the world to build their lives and homes upon the prairie soil. I suggested that showing how the houses have combatted the Herculean, unrelenting forces of time might be an interesting part of the exhibit – but that it would require some personal travel out west. Michael Miller and Jeremy Kopp of the GRHC enthusiastically agreed.

This idea was part of a larger problem we face. You see, staff at the GRHC estimate that less than 50% of the homes photographed and documented in the Father William C. Sherman Photograph Collection still stand in any easily-identifiable form. I could not spend three weeks on the road, so the list of thirty homes was cut to fifteen, then to ten, and finally to a lean eight sites, not including the churches I would visit along the way. They sent me on my way with a 35mm and a fancy digital camera strapped to my back.

The first home was an easy find and I was excited to be out in grassland country, searching for remnants from the past. Despite the on-and-off drizzle of rain, I was immersed in a rhythm I only experience when taking photographs – changing time signatures with the click and wind of my trusty Canon AE-1. The cadence continued to play in my head as I made my way to the second site. After missing a turn or two, I found my way over to the road that would bring me to a flatland…if my calculations were correct. From there, I could make the half-mile trek to the front door of a sizeable, one-and-a-half-story home south of Danzig, North Dakota.

I knew from Google Maps that the old road was now underwater. I did not know, however, that it would turn out to be a rippling body of water that went well past my waist. Shame I left the canoe back in Minnesota. Google Maps also forgot to inform me that my path was blocked by an electric fence holding back fifty head of cattle taking their drink from the lake that was slowly intruding on their land. I could see the house in the distance past the vacant gaze of the cows. Fueled by a desire to press on, I called the property owner and received their gracious permission to navigate my way to the long-abandoned dwelling.

I walked along the northern fence line, hoping to leave the cows undisturbed to enjoy their grazing and bathing. After walking a quarter mile up the fence line, I entered the pasture toward the house about 700 yards away as the crow flew. All was well, and I felt the rhythm returning. I thought I had slipped past the herd unnoticed, but a mother and her small calf followed close behind me. They seemed curious as to why this scrawny city-slicker was on their land, but they gave me space and I returned the favor as I continued to walk on.

Then, like some distant war cry, a cow let out a thunderous moo. I snapped my head toward the sound. I was met with the searing gaze of the herd. In an instant, the entire battalion of beef began their swift march toward me. The sound of their swarm filled me with fright.

Some of you reading may chuckle at my fear, knowing that most cows are harmless. Know that I, too, thought the same thing…if only for a split second. However, I also realized I stood alone in the middle of a field, miles from the nearest non-bovine mammal. My only option for shelter was half-sunken into a lake. So…I ran. Two cameras in hand, weighed down by cow-pie-plastered boots, and a backpack that beat the back of my head with each step…I ran. I imagine the birds circling above had a great view of this comical scene. I could feel stampede gaining ground on me, but just in time, I threw the backpack over the fence, dropped to my belly, and rolled under the fence catching and ripping my pants on the barbed wire.

The cows escorted me as I walked back to my car, hollering their victory tunes as they went. I had the impression they were mocking me for being short of breath, defeated, and covered in cow poo. I took pictures of the home from a distance as best I could. After they kindly posed for a few photos, I forgave the cows and figured I should be on my way. I had another three homes to visit before I linked up with Dr. Isern for his weekly Willow Creek Folk School session. I chalked this one up as an udder failure. Though they could stop me from intruding on their pasture and make me rip my favorite pair of blue jeans, the cows could not halt my quest to find some information on the house they so stalwartly protected. Here is what I found. 

On the crest of the outer reaches of Goose Lake in McIntosh County, North Dakota, stands a fashionable, 2 ½ story cut-stone home. Planted in the lowlands of Danzig, an unincorporated township between Ashley and Wishek, the cut-stone house has stood for over a century. When it was first built, and for well after, the water that now surrounds it was confined to a southeastern section officially named Goose Lake.

The original owners were George and Lena Wiles. They moved to the homesite between sometime around 1890, just North of the Hoskins settlement. George was born in Ohio and traveled to the Wishek area like many others at that time. Lena was born in Danzig, Germany, around 1876. She arrived in the U.S. in 1886 at the age of ten and married George Wiles in 1890 when she was fourteen. Lena had a child almost yearly, giving birth to five children before her 21st birthday. The Wiles owned 160 acres of land on the southeast corner and northeast corner of sections 131 and 130 a few miles south of Danzig, North Dakota. By 1910, however, the family had moved to Virginia and stayed there. Many of their ten children spent their entire lives in Virginia.

Perhaps prairie life was not for them, or maybe they found better opportunities eastward. 

The image shows an impressive home partially built into the hillside, where the lowlands come to a relatively steep break. Father William C. Sherman visited the site in the 1970s with NDSU students. Sherman concluded that the home was unlikely built by the Wiles. Instead, he figured a professional constructed it since the house was very unlike others in the nearby area with its hipped roof and symmetrical and consistent construction. Even in the 1970s, the eastern view from the house was a vista of patchy prairie grass. 

Like Devils Lake, Goose Lake experienced rising water levels after historical droughts in the 1990s. Cycles of drought and years of heavy rainfall and snow have continued the waterfront's slow encroachment on the property. That same eastern elevation that looked out over the prairie expanse has collapsed into the lake, and a window on the north elevation is now half-buried as the home continues to reunite with the Earth from which its stone and mortar originated.

As I was about to leave, I was lucky enough to run into a friendly group of locals looking to spend the day fishing in Goose Lake. They provided me some information on the house and the rapid change of the waterways in the area. In return, I shared my harrowing experience beyond the wire with the cows. They assured me they meant no harm. I looked back to the herd; their menacing gaze said otherwise. After thanking them for their hospitality and insider knowledge, I drove back to the main outlet road. I had a 45-minute drive before I reached the following site. I spent the drive thinking about all the teasing I would receive from my wife when I told her I was chased out of a pasture by a herd of cows, but I also reflected on how the Danzig home fits into a broad narrative on historic preservation.

I pondered the day-to-day life of the Wiles. What was life like for them here? What made them want to leave? It was hard to imagine because the landscape I saw was nothing like what they experienced. How does my training and education in historic preservation transfer to this on-the-ground situation? Does it really matter anyway? This home is one of the thousands scattered across North Dakota. What is the point of this expedition, anyhow? I rattled my brain to make sense of it all. 

I attempted to look beyond the purview of modern historic preservation tactics that tend to freeze a building in place. North Dakotans, I thought, could offer new insight into homesteading history. With the house on the cusp of ruins, I could see past its materiality. To appreciate its current state and how the world has progressed around it. The stories of the inhabitants were still there…somewhere. Yet, life in North Dakota continued on after the Wiles left. New owners took over the land to build their own homes and futures. The crumbling state of the house aroused in me a more potent curiosity than if it had remained pristine after all these years. By the time I stopped to have lunch at the Wishek McTwist, I had accepted that historical buildings need not exist frozen in time for us to understand their importance, relevance, and beauty. In a sense, the home is only returning to its natural place within the Earth.

Renegotiating historic preservation standards is particularly important in North Dakota where homesteads are scattered about the prairie and are far from city centers where a large share of preservation funds are concentrated. In the past, private funds and state support have succeeded in repairing and preserving homesteads like the Hutmacher home and the Welk Homestead. Yet, such sites require yearly maintenance to resist the destructive forces of time. Funds and, more importantly (and more lacking), plenty of human labor are necessary to preserve homes. The Danzig home is no different; with no family to keep the spirit and structure of the house in shape, it has few defenses against nature. Instead, most historic buildings in North Dakota, particularly in rural locations, have been left to decay. Much of this is familiar to readers from rural areas; abandoned buildings have occupied the countryside for decades. There is, of course, a sense of wonder and beauty in observing a historical building beyond its lifespan. No urgency to save them, no worrying about maintenance costs, no pressing need to interfere – only the slow churning of Earth's machinations, returning its elements to the fold.

Nonetheless, the fine people of this state ought to feel some sense of duty to safeguard the homes through whatever means we can. An obligation to secure homesteads within the larger history of North Dakota. A commitment to preserve and share stories of diverse settlers, like the Wiles, who called this state home – even if only for a short time.